Corny, yes; pretentious, sure; overwrought, definitely — but every frame of it is thrilling.Robert Mitchum is stupendous as the squinty-eyed, vicious, woman-hating preacher who marries young, naïve widow Shelley Winters for the money her no-good husband (Peter Graves) stashed away. Mitchum, who carries a switchblade and has "HATE" and "LOVE" tattooed on the knuckles of either fist (you might recognize this from Spike Lee's homage in Do the Right Thing), tries to terrorize Winters' two children into revealing the whereabouts of the cash. Hard-bitten old Lillian Gish takes the kids in to protect them from Mitchum, but it's by no means clear that the old woman and the vulnerable children are any match for Mitchum the human bulldozer.
James Agee's script is long on eligiac turns of phrase ("God bless the little children — they endure") but offers some surprisingly off-color dialogue, and Agee gets right into the maniac's head. By the time the children are hiding from Mitchum in the basement, he has become a deeply frightening presence — a charming, sleek monster, like Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt. The moment when Mitchum, wading grimly after the kids in a pond, stops singing and lets out a primal shriek makes you sit up straight and stop being aware of anything outside the movie; so does the famous image of Winters in the same pond, her hair floating dreamily.This hellfire masterpiece was Charles Laughton's first and only effort as a director. It's breathtaking in just about every detail.